The effects of what was happening in Europe during the 1930’s changed attitudes of many in Hollywood. Anti-fascist groups organized, some led by movie stars like Paul Muni, James Cagney Melvyn Douglas and Sylvia Sydney. Most of the American public was still recovering from the depression and were not concerned about the potential war that was about to erupt in Europe and felt that American interest were best served by staying out of the furor building up over there. As late as 1939, Joe Kennedy, America’s Ambassador to England was at odds with President Roosevelt over Roosevelt’s providing ships to aid Churchill and England who feared an invasion by Hitler.
Warner Brothers, the most socially committed of all the major studios, led by Jack Warner, always persisted in making films that provided more than just entertainment value. In the early 1930’s Warner’s produced films that were ripped from “today’s headlines”, films with a message, “I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang”, “Heroes for Sale”, “The Public Enemy” and “They Won’t Forget” to name a few. In the late 1930’s Warner’s, unlike MGM, closed their business operations in Germany after their offices were attacked by hate mongers that resulted in the death of one employee. This was done despite the fact that Germany was Hollywood’s largest European customer at the time.
Based on a series of articles by former FBI agent Leon G. Torrou, who had been active as an agent investigating the infiltration of Nazi spies in the United States, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” is considered the first anti-Nazi film to come out of Hollywood.
The story involves Dr. Karl Kassel (Paul Lukas) a propagandist who has come to America to rally support for the Nazi cause focusing on German-Americans. He brings forth the Fuehrer words that Germans are Germans first and Americans second and that they need to help bring down the evils of democracy. An unemployed disaffected man name Kurt Schneider (Frances Lederer) joins the cause, agreeing spy for the Nazis. Schneider manages to obtain sensitive troop information deceiving a German-American soldier (Joe Sawyer) into providing the data. A German passenger ship, the Bismarck, is continuously transporting new agents into America, including Hilda Kleinhauser who will eventually be apprehended by FBI agent Ed Renard (Edward G. Robinson) who has been assigned to investigate the case. When Miss Kleinhauser confesses and Schneider is arrested, the domino effect of the entire spy ring begins to crumble.
Directed by Anatole Litvak, “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” was a powerful document for the time, awakening Americans to the threat that war at their front door. Believing that Hitler and the war was Europe’s problem only, many American’s wanted to continue an isolationist policy. For making the film, producer Jack Warner would face accusations of being a warmonger. The film is done in a semi-documentary style incorporating actual news clips throughout the story. Overall, the film is fast paced and thoroughly engrossing. Edward G. Robinson delivers a typical strong performance as the lead FBI agent Renard expounding on the evils of the Nazi threat and America’s do nothing policy. The real acting highlight belongs to Paul Lukas as Dr. Kassel whose pro-Nazi rants are frighteningly as real as those you see of Hitler himself. George Sanders is also on board playing Nazi officer Franz Schlager.
It should be mentioned that many actors and behind the scenes artists who worked on this film feared a backlash back in Germany. Actors and crew with family members still living in the fatherland feared for their safety. Some actors resorted to changing their names to help in hiding their identity. Composer Max Steiner and cinematographer Ernest Haller received no credit on this film, which may have been purposeful on their part fearing a backlash to relatives back in Germany. The film was banned in both Germany and Japan as well as other European countries that had fallen to the Nazi machine. It is rumored Hitler promised to kill everyone involved in the making of this film after Germany has won the war.
Considered the first film to be released on the topic of anti-Nazism the film was released six months prior to the start of the war in 1939, awakening Americans to the danger of Hitler’s Germany. Still, there were isolationists who refused to take heed. There were groups in America who considered anti-Nazism to mean you were pro-communism. Supporters of Germany branded actors like Edward G. Robinson, Frances Leader, studio head Jack Warner and others communists or at least communist supporters. In the film if you look closely you will see a propaganda flyer headline that accuses then President Franklin Roosevelt of being a communist.
By 1940 and after, other filmmakers and studios jumped on the anti-Nazi bandwagon as Hitler’s terror spread across Europe with films like “All Through the Night”, “Foreign Correspondent”, :Man Hunt and “The Mortal Storm.” After MGM released “The Mortal Storm in 1940, Hitler banned MGM films. “Confessions of a Nazi Spy” remains the most blatant and one of the most interesting.
One last note, director Don Siegel worked on the montage sequences of this film.